People Aware, People Unaware
One of the best course introductions we have made over the last couple of years is Photography 1: People and Place. We commissioned the course because our photography course leaders told us that the level 2 Social Documentary course was often too challenging for students who had perhaps avoided people photography in their level one work. I’ve learned that sporting events are good places to build your confidence when taking people unaware shots. People completely absorbed in the challenge do not have the spare mental capacity to wonder why you are photographing them and if they do they often just accept it as part of competing. I am as nervous as anyone in these situations but I know that practicing has made it easier for me to frame shots and focus. Since I have a been a keen cyclist since a child, I knew when the National Hill Climb Championships came to Sheffield last year that there would be opportunities to capture shots of total concentration. I also knew there would be suffering, which could be photographed without any of the moral dilemmas which have featured in a number of recent discussions in the student forums (and which will no doubt be a feature of the trip we are making to the Tate Modern on Saturday).
Photographing self inflicted pain is, after all, a staple of sports photography. The absolute master of this for competitive cycling is, and has been for many years, Graham Watson whose images of professional cycling show both an ability to capture telling portraits and perfect composition
But there are other genres of cycling photography. One of the more recent has been promoted heavily by the magazine Rouleur and blogs such as Embrocation which focus on the almost fetishistic relationship between cyclists, their bodies, their clothing and equipment. A leading exponent of this approach is Stefan Rohner whose work covers editorial, social documentary and advertising. In a consumer society, the relationship between an individual and their artifacts increasing defines them and their relationships with others. To argue the case by taking an extreme counter-example, Richard Avedon’s In The American West is rightly a classic, but by stripping away the evidence of the subject’s environment he forces us to relate to them, rather than allowing us to see how they relate to each other.
On a day when it seems most of my colleagues are focused on another sporting event in South Africa, I’m pleased to see that Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler’s book, Bicycle Portraits – everyday South Africans and their bicycles has achieved the necessary funding to proceed. It is another example of another genre, which might be rather paradoxically called the ‘the posed ethnographic study’ and I write these words I can hear Peter Haveland, our visual studies course leader, whispering in my ear ‘define everyday’. Another day maybe.